Desperate Housewives writer, consulting producer, and resident science geek Jeff Greenstein is reading about string theory for fun, but that doesn't meant the women of Wisteria Lane will explore new dimensions of space and time this season. Still, "the running joke in the writers room this year is that the five-year jump allows us to have everybody going to work in hovercrafts," the witty Greenstein revealed in a recent interview. "Yesterday there was a reference to Tom having been injured in the Robot Wars."
The intervening time actually hasn't been quite that eventful, but viewers already know from the season four finale that Susan is kissing someone other than Mike, Bree is channeling Martha Stewart, Lynette's terrible twins are terrible teens, and Gabrielle is an unglamorous mother of two. Season five will be set in that intriguing future.
"You'll see some flashbacks. Occasionally there will be some things you've missed that we'll have to explain. There's going to be some things you've missed that we're not going to explain so quickly," he commented. However, "we're not doing Lost. We're not slaves to flashbacks."
What else will he reveal? "I think people know that Edie will return and she will bring a mystery with her," he said cautiously.
"Carlos at the beginning of the season has been blind for five years, so he's relatively facile. When we last saw him, he was awkward and figuring out how to operate in the world. Now he's got it together and he's got a job and he's functional." Greenstein won't say whether a miracle cure is coming up … but come on, it totally is.
The show is creator Marc Cherry's to spoil or not, though neither man is a fan of exposing key details. "We tried very much to protect the five-year jump, and then it got out. It made it a little less take-your-breath-away when we did it," Greenstein lamented, contrasting that to his own surprise at Lost's season-ending flashforward reveal. "That's what entertainment is all about: creating the oh-my-god moments. I do worry it robs from the experience if you already know that kind of stuff."
The Five-Year Gap: "It was born of the desire to reset the predicaments."
As consulting producer, Greenstein divides his working time between his own shows in development with ABC Studios and two or three days a week on Desperate Housewives. Currently working on episodes five and six, he feels the time jump has added creative energy to the writing team. "There are some really good surprises coming up," he promised. Just don't ask exactly what those are.
He will explain the rationale for the decision to hit fast forward. "When the show initially started, it depicted, in a somewhat heightened way, the lives of suburban women. No matter what gothic or soapy or over-the-top direction the show went, it always attempted to be grounded in the genuine experiences of women living in that world."
"We found that after four years in, we were looking to portray those predicaments once again. We didn't want to have to wait to show Gabrielle with children, or Bree in a thriving business, so we figured let's just jump ahead and do it. … Let's see what Lynette is like with two 16-year-olds at home. That was something we didn't want to have to wait until season ten to start exploring."
The writers aren't the only ones to benefit from the creative renewal. "The five-year jump has allowed us to take this wonderful cast we have and put them through their paces. Eva Longoria is very beautiful. Having her play someone who is feeling unattractive after having two children, who feels like she's lost her luster, those are challenges for Eva. And good for her, she's great, she'll rise to the challenge," he continued. "That's true of everyone on the show. We're going to give them different kinds of things to do that build on where they've been in the past and yet enable them to stretch."
"That's part of the joy of working on a television series: you get to write the big Russian novel. Over time you can unfold the story and find depths in a character that weren't there when the character was initially designed."
Getting Away With Murder: "We don't like to draw attention to the fact that it's a very dangerous place to live."
When I relay the story of a friend of mine lightheartedly wondering if "resetting the women's predicaments" meant another tornado was due on Wisteria Lane soon, Greenstein assured me the producers try not to repeat themselves. They also don't worry much about getting too outrageous.
Though the comedic tone feeds on a steady diet of high dramas, including natural disasters, cancer, infidelity with underage lovers, secret children, murder, and other not-so-everyday occurrences, he theorizes that the show's matter-of-fact acceptance of those events allows it to transcend the soapiness.
"It would be very easy to have characters make jokes about the number of murders on the lane, or the number of disasters that have befallen people, or the number of people who have wrestled with life-threatening this or that. We don't do that. The show is grounded in hopefully recognizable suburban reality, so we try not to call undue attention to the over-the-top gothic aspects to life on Wisteria Lane."
"In real life, you would never buy the Young house," he laughed.
Gambling on Change: "Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't."
With each new season comes a new central mystery for the show and often new cast members. From casting news, we know some of the older children are disappearing as regular characters. The upcoming season will see new kids on the block as Lynette's are recast and Gaby's added, plus Gale Harold plays the mystery man locking lips with Susan and Neal McDonough has joined the cast as Edie's new man, presumably part of the season's mystery. Greenstein, not shockingly, didn't open up about those specifics, and he shrugged off the suggestion that the show takes greater risks because of them.
"Any time you put a mark on a canvas you take a risk," he pointed out. "We're always trying to challenge ourselves creatively and push ourselves to go someplace we haven't been before and add voices we haven't heard before, and there's always risks involved."
Even when a creative choice doesn't work as well as hoped, Greenstein sees television as an ideal medium for risk-taking. "The fun of being on a series as opposed to a movie is you get many shots at it. You have the fun of evolving choices over time."
He used the example of last season's mystery, which revolved around Katherine Mayfair and her family, as a particularly successful gamble. "We were betting the season on whoever we cast in that role," Greenstein recalled. "Fortunately we cast Dana Delany and she was absolutely spectacular. We bet the season on her and we won."
The Writing Process: "There's a lot of advance planning."
The plan was always to have the women close ranks around Katherine in the finale, though Greenstein says they were also fortunate that she and her character were embraced so wholeheartedly, and that Delany was willing to return for the upcoming season. "There's always a delicate chemistry in a show that's been running this long, so to bring someone in who fits in so well creatively and as a person is really lovely."
As usual, the writers already know where season five will end up and at least the broad strokes of how they'll get there. "We're very rigorous about figuring out the arc of the season's mystery, but there's always room for surprises. It may be that things you thought were going to work don't, and other things work better than anticipated. Sometimes you speed up or slow down your plotting to accommodate that."
"There's a small group of us that arcs the season and breaks the stories," he explained, offering a verbal peek into the series' writing process. "Then we send one or two writers off to write a story, they bring them back to us, we give them notes, they do rewrites and then we do a final polish of it in the room, the way a sitcom does. It's a very idiosyncratic process. It's sort of a hybrid of the half-hour process and the hour process. Because it's sort of a comedy and it's sort of a serial drama and it's sort of a soap, it has a lot of the greatest hits of the processes you use to make those kinds of shows."
Secrets to Success and Sanity: "You can't run a show based on focus groups."
Greenstein's previous credits are half-hour sitcoms including Dream On, Friends, and Will & Grace. The man whose input remains a foundation of the popular Friends FAQ has seen television's web-based fandom evolve from being a "strange little cadre of people" to the near-ubiquitous force it is today.
"I used to pay a lot of attention to it and now I pay absolutely no attention to it," he said about the Internet chatter. "As a creative person who operates in the public sphere, you always have to figure out how to deal with people reviewing what you do and talking about you as if they know you. They start to imbue motive to you based on reading your IMDb entry."
"You have to learn how to disregard anything that isn't complimentary," he added, tongue in cheek.
Greenstein thinks writers can't completely ignore the reception to their work, but neither can critical and fan reaction dictate to them. "There is a little bit of a feedback loop where you try to be tuned in to what people think, but ultimately it's the show we want to do, it's the show we feel is right. If you try to let the fans dictate where your show goes, you're dead," he emphasized.
"Ultimately Desperate Housewives is the show we feel like doing and the show that is meaningful and funny and important to us. The fact that people embrace it is kind of miraculous and wonderful."
Season five of Desperate Housewives premieres Sunday, September 28 at 9 pm on ABC.Powered by Sidelines